Construct, Re-Construct or Self-Destruct: Strategies for Africa

Quantity without quality, particularly in the context of higher education, is simply meaningless and wasteful—perhaps dangerous. The ongoing phenomenon of mergers and consolidations taking place in South Africa, as controversial as it may be, has some lessons for Africa in an expansion mode.   

October 22, 2012


The University Teaching and Learning Office at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, organized its Six Annual Conference under the theme of “Higher Education in an Era of Reconstruction, Internationalisation, Competition & Cooperation” in September 2012. The conference attracted more than 300 national participants and others from the subregion. Speakers, including Jamil Salmi and Kenneth King, whose presentations and reflections on global dynamics of higher education and cooperation inspired new vigor to the ongoing dialogue in the country’s higher education system.

Salmi noted three ways of promoting excellence in a country—build new from a scratch; amalgamate (merge); or reorganize existing configurations in an institution. Insisting on the importance of national context, he noted the pros and cons of each approaches.

For all its remarkable achievements in expansion, equity and access, South Africa grapples with issues of quality and dropout rates. In reaction, the higher education minister was reported to have said that it is necessary “to work with whatever [students] we have” to improve quality. This underlying problem of quality has been central to reconfiguring South African higher education through mergers, consolidation and threat of dissolution.

While South Africa expands and consolidates, further afield, in the rest of Africa, construction (of new institutions) is a prominent pre-occupation. Zimbabwe has expanded the number of universities from one in the 1980s to 11 now; the latest addition to this is a new military university, inaugurated last month. Tanzania is another example. Enrollment at the University of Dar es Salaam has expanded three fold in a decade. The most phenomenal growth in African higher education expansion may be in Ethiopia where the number of public universities has grown from 2 to over 30 and student numbers ballooned from some 50 thousand to more than 400 thousand in a decade. Yet for all the phenomenal expansion, Africa’s enrollment figure still hovers around 5 percent.

World Class Universities vs. “Classless” Universities

Rankings now situate institutions in contestable hierarchies declaring a certain institution as “number one” and another “number one hundred”; that an institution “dropped a notch” while another made “some gains”. One recent ranking claims that more African universities now fall in the top 400 list, but only from South Africa.

The importance and implications of rankings are growing by leaps and bounds. They are a concern of governments, university administrators, faculty, students and parents. Stories abound on the consequences of rankings from a firing of a university president due to a poor institutional showing to tweaking national immigration policies to raise the international student profile.

For the vast majority of universities in developing countries, the placement at the high end of the rankings is simply out of reach and irrelevant. These “classless” universities however remain the main incubators for the majority of graduates who populate the teaching, academic, research, business, civil society, NGOs, and government sectors.

The global marketplace of knowledge tends to be shaped by the world class universities but the “Classless universities” have a critical role to play. Every university has to aspire to deliver “quality” education that is “contextualized”—which, Salmi, admits is missing in his book.

Institutions are not and should not be born or raised as though they are all equal. The experience of the public higher education in California that differentiates institutions as mainly research focused, teaching and less research focused, and the open system of community colleges has useful lessons for Africa.

Thus for nation building and global competitiveness, egalitarianism is as impractical as it reckless. To be sure, in the arduous task of institution building, populist ideals of institutional egalitarianism need to be rejected. Institutional isomorphism needs to give way to diversity and differentiation.

“Democracy” and Access: Emerging Perverted Loopholes

Expanding higher education has now become a common election manifesto in fledgling democracies in Africa. Incumbents and opposition candidates often run on pledges of establishing new universities and expanding access. This is a commendable national agenda, but the expansions need to be pursued beyond building “glorified high schools” for electoral gains. An African government minister once said, “Who actually cares about the number of conferences and a number of papers published when it is too attractive and popular to declare to your electorates that so many number of universities are built and so many students enrolled.”

Massive, often poorly planned and executed expansions have had serious quality and ethical consequences. Establishing and sustaining meaningful institutions requires a longer shelf life than the short-lived, narrow and inflated figures characteristic of populist elections.

Self-Destruct to Self-Construct

South African higher education has been undergoing transformation for nearly twenty years. The system has witnessed expansion as well as contraction by way of mergers and liquidations as it strived to address the imbalance perpetrated by Apartheid. In cases where institutions have proved woefully inadequate they have been placed “under administration.”

In one of the plenary sessions at the conference, a Vice Chancellor of a fledgling institution, braved the idea of “self-destructing” in order to merge with a better institution nearby. It was impressive, unprecedented and caring of the highest order to sacrifice one’s institution in order to construct a new hybrid. This should be the guiding spirit that rules South Africa in its effort to raise the quality of higher education. Such selflessness should drive the discussion of institutional reconfiguration in the country and beyond.

African Scholarship: Pride in Premiership

The University of Kwazulu-Natal takes pride in calling itself the Premier University of African Scholarship pursuing excellence, intellectual leadership, and relevance. At the climax of the discussion by  Salmi, the vision of “African Scholarship” was challenged by an alternative of “World Scholarship.” Such healthy dialogue in Durban, Addis Ababa, or Accra needs to be encouraged.

In a competitive world of global knowledge market, the temptation and pressure to imitate major players is tremendous.  Largely shunned by its own constituencies and ignored by others, “African Scholarship” resides in a corner of “World Scholarship”. It is thus commendable to pursue a strategic vision grounded nationally, aspiring regionally and operating globally.


Quantity without quality, particularly in the context of higher education, is simply meaningless and wasteful—perhaps dangerous. The ongoing phenomenon of mergers and consolidations taking place in South Africa, as controversial as it may be, has some lessons for Africa in an expansion mode.   Furthermore, egalitarianism and isomorphism should pave the way for diversity and differentiation to ensure better access, equity and quality in fostering national development and enhancing global competitiveness. The notion of World Class Universities is captivating and seductive but should be grounded, moderated and contextualized as classless universities strive to improve quality, equity and access. Thus, Africa should resist from turning into a breeding zone of isomorphic clones that perpetuate misplaced egalitarianism in higher education.


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